DURHAM — A new study by researchers at Duke University documented a ripple effect of behavioral problems in middle schools where higher numbers of students repeated a grade.
The research, published online Friday on the website of the journal Teachers College Record, looked at data from more than 79,000 students in 334 North Carolina middle schools.
In schools with high numbers of students who repeated a grade, there were more suspensions, substance abuse problems, fights and classroom disruptions. Researchers say the study indicates the decision to hold students back can have negative consequences for their classmates.
The findings have relevance as North Carolina implements a new law that could increase the number of older and retained students. The Read to Achieve program requires third-grade students to pass the state end-of-grade reading exam or risk being held back. Thousands of children may have to attend summer reading camps to get up to speed or fall behind a grade.
The Duke researchers say educators tend to focus on how individual students fare when they are held back. Just as important may be the question of how that decision affects other children, says Clara Muschkin, associate director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.
The study’s authors examined data from the state’s public schools and noted a strong relationship between the number of older and retained students, who have a higher incidence of behavioral problems, and their classmates’ actions.
If 20 percent of children in seventh grade were older than their peers, for example, the chance that other students would commit an infraction or be suspended increased by 200 percent.
The study controlled for other factors that could explain the impact, including schools’ socio-economic makeup and parents’ education level.
Previous studies have shown the influence of peers seems to be strongest in early adolescence. Students who have been held back or who are older may be out of sync physically and socially with their classmates in middle school, Muschkin said.
“It’s really important that with a policy like Read to Achieve you look at the long-term potential consequences,” Muschkin said. “Not just for the individual, but for the school community and school climate overall.”
When older and retained students were present, discipline problems increased for all subgroups but were more pronounced among white students and girls of all races.
Critics of social promotion have advocated holding struggling students back. The Duke study does not say that some students should not be retained; in fact, it states that those students can benefit academically. The downside is trouble with behavior.
The widespread practice of retaining students can have a negative schoolwide impact, Muschkin said, and therefore educators should focus on struggling students through tutoring, summer school and mentoring.
“Giving academic support to kids who have been held back is really, really essential,” she said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson has advocated modifying the law so that children can still be promoted while receiving interventions such as summer reading camp.
“I think it is unnecessary and it is punitive for children to have a big fat ‘F’ for failure on their backs at such a young age,” Atkinson said.